Back in the 2018-19 season, Duke played four teams during nonconference play that were ranked in the top 15 at the time, and the Blue Devils won three of those games. They spent that entire season ranked in the top five of the AP Top 25 with freshmen phenoms Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish on a roster that was amply capable of handling a slate that also included the likes of Indiana and St. John’s.
This time around, the dynamics are a bit different as the Blue Devils look to bounce back back from missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996 while also sending off legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski on a high note in his final season on the bench.
While the Blue Devils do have a trio of marquee games on their nonconference slate, which was released Wednesday, it’s a relatively light schedule by the standards of a storied program. That should give the Blue Devils a chance to stockpile victories after a rough 2020-21 campaign as Krzyzewski prepares to hand over the whistle to associate head coach Jon Scheyer following the season.
Here’s a look at Duke’s full 2021 nonconference schedule with the ACC slate to be announced at a later date:
Nov. 9: Kentucky (State Farm Champions Classic in New York)
Nov. 12: Army
Nov. 13: Campbell
Nov. 16: Gardner-Webb
Nov. 19: Lafayette
Nov. 22: The Citadel
Nov. 26: Gonzaga (Continental Tire Challenge in Las Vegas, Nevada)
Nov. 30: at Ohio State
Dec. 14: Appalachian State
Dec. 18: Cleveland State
Let’s dissect the schedule more closely by ranking the Blue Devils’ five most challenging nonconference games.
Nov. 12 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina
2020-21 record: 12-10
Coach: Jimmy Allen
Army’s presence as one of the five most difficult games on Duke’s nonconference schedule is less about the Black Knights and more about the circumstances surrounding the game. With the Blue Devils coming off a big-time showdown against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden just three days before, the letdown factor could be in play. There will also be plenty of peripheral hype surrounding this game since Krzyzewski is an Army graduate who coached the Black Knights from 1975-80.
4. Cleveland State
Dec. 18 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina
2020-21 record: 19-8
Coach: Dennis Gates
Gates did a magnificent job leading Cleveland State to just its second NCAA Tournament appearance since 1986 last season in his second year as coach. The Vikings played Ohio State close on the road in December before winning the Horizon League. This is a program on the rise that will have an opportunity to showcase itself on the national stage against a Duke team that better not be looking ahead to Christmas break.
Nov. 9 at Madison Square Garden in New York (State Farm Champions Classic)
2020-21 record: 9-16
Coach: John Calipari
Krzyzewski is 6-2 all-time against Kentucky, which is a great mark considering the two programs have typically been among the nation’s elite since he started the job in the 1980-81 season. Now he’ll get one last crack at the Wildcats on a massive stage in the season-opener for two programs seeking a reversal of fortunes following dismal 2020-21 campaigns. Both teams missed the NCAA Tournament in the same year for the first time since 1976 last season. Whoever wins this marquee season opener will be on the fast track back to the Big Dance.
2. Ohio State
Nov. 30 at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)
2020-21 record: 21-10
Coach: Chris Holtmann
Duke leads the all-time series 4-3, which includes a 2-1 mark under Krzyzewski. But they have only played at Ohio State once during his tenure, and that was an 86-63 Ohio State win during the 2011-12 season. With the Buckeyes returning star forward E.J. Liddell from a team that landed a No. 2 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, this will be a stiff road test for the Blue Devils.
Nov. 26 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (Continental Tire Challenge)
2020-21 record: 31-1
Coach: Mark Few
This is a dream matchup for both college basketball fans and NBA scouts as it will feature Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 prospect in the 2021 class, for Gonzaga against Duke freshman Paolo Banchero, who was considered the No. 2 player in the class. Both are projected lottery picks in the 2022 NBA Draft and both are expected to help their college programs be among the nation’s best in the 2021-22 season. This should be one of the best games of the regular season in college basketball.